Maximising the VMG to Lord Howe and the party afterwards.
Recently, we had the opportunity to take part in one of Australia’s most enigmatic and culturally enjoyable ocean races, the Leasecorp 2000 Gosford to Lord How Island Race. This recollection of the race details how J44 Phoenix set about getting there as quickly as possible and some of what happened when we arrived.
The story includes a little background about the boat and crew, some detail about the information provided by CSIRO, the race forecast and conditions, how the CSIRO advice was combined with weather forecasts in a strategy to maximise the boat’s VMG (velocity-made-good) to Lord Howe. For those unfamiliar with the J44, it is the ocean racing, big sister of the J24 and the J35, out of the same design stable and certainly a superb seagoing vessel. Built in the US and fitted out for comfort, it nonetheless carries a fast rig and has a great turn of speed. Like all boats she is a compromise but for a bunch of middle aged yachties who no longer hanker for the joy of developing a 2 ½ day dose of “gunwale bum” and enjoy a roast prepared by one of the best sea-going chefs in Australian ocean racing, this boat has all the right compromises.
This is not to say we are talking about a slow boat by any means. The J44 usually “blows away” similar sized Beneteaus and is up alongside the Bashford 40s and Mumm 36’s at the finish and is a high level performer if she is sailed well. She is as tweaky as a dinghy, but with state of the art instrumentation, finding the groove is more a case of experience and numbers than guesswork (as long as you know how to read the numbers).
I first came across the boat and its then new owner, Rob Reynolds, on a delivery trip back from Noumea in 1992. Chris (“Vorbi”) Vorbach and I who have sailed and raced together around the Australian coast for over 20 years on yachts such as Anaconda II and Balandra were seconded to cook and navigate (in that order; I can’t cook). We brought the J from Noumea to Sydney after a new rig had been dropped in place following a distastrous end to the 1992 Sydney-Noumea race.
Rob, now Commodore of Middle Harbour Yacht Club, has raced the boat in a couple of Sydney-Hobarts, representing Tasmania in our 1997 Southern Cross Cup team and competing in most of the East Coast regattas from Coffs Harbour through to the Hamilton and Hayman series. He obviously survived the food and the navigation from Noumea in ’92 and “Vorbi” now runs the boat and galley while I still spend some time each year trying to work out just where the hell we should be instead of where the hell we are. Another of the race crew to Lord Howe was Jim McCormack, a local Hobart yachty, known for this performances with Andy Hay on Huon Chief during the nineties, as well as his occasional bursts of song that hark back to his time in choirs and a barber’s shop quartet. As an aside, he does sometimes (with fermented encouragement) get the lyrics mixed up with certain little ditties picked up in younger days at uni.
The rest of the crew comprised Noel “Handy Hints” Elliott, ex Bashford boat builders, Miles “Milo” Emery, a champion Lacrosse player, big-boat yachty and drinker, (although not necessarily in that order), Scotty from Ausail Yacht Charters, Steve White, from MHYC with plenty of miles under his belt and Peter “I’m worried if I eat, I won’t get pissed enough!” Crane.
To the main part of this story; one can liken the planning and execution of a yacht race strategy to making a soufflé. First of all, you gather together the ingredients, in our case; forecasts for current and weather, a credible amount of local knowledge and previous experience of this race on board the boat, which you then start mixing all together. As the race unfolds, weather forecasts become reality, (or not!), currents run more strongly or in other directions than forecast and local knowledge proves its worth (or becomes unreliable). So just as in the case of a chef getting a soufflé to rise, how a yacht’s crew actually handle all of these variables and keep the boat moving towards the mark will determine whether or not the end result will be enjoyment of a sweet tasting, light-hearted victory or feeling flat and exasperated at what might have been.
The East Australian Current has been the cause of more wins and losses than any other single factor in Australian ocean racing history and the Lord Howe race is certainly no exception. With this in mind, and having direct access to the CSIRO locally, I enlisted the help of George Cresswell and Kim Badcock from the Hobart headquarters to supply an up-to-date current chart, as at the Thursday prior to race start, and an analysis of what it meant. To my great delight they supplied the chart in living colour which, if anything seemed to enhance the importance of the current as an integral part of our overall race strategy. (This information is readily available to all on the net – www.marine.csiro.au)
Combined with a weather forecast of south west to south east winds at 10 to 20 knots as a low moved away into the Tasman, followed by lighter south east to north east winds later in the race, knowledge about the current set the parameters by which we were to work out our best possible speed and direction as we progressed towards the island. In putting aside the weather forecast for a moment and analysing the current chart there is a small eddy off Gosford where the race started, resulting initially in a clockwise rotation of approximately 1.5 knots. As the flow was taking us generally in the direction of Lord Howe at the northern end of the eddy the major decision to be made was still to come. We had a fresh southerly blowing and the boat covered 130 miles in the first 12 hours with sprung sheets. Thus we cleared out of this first eddy fairly quickly, hitting the main current running SSE at 2 to 3 knots right on schedule in longitude 153 degrees 30 minutes east. At this point we were a little north of our main rival, Occasional Course Language and in company with Zurich.
The next bit was the tricky part. All boats had to wear the southern set from long. 153.30 to 154.40 but what to do then? Eventually the fleet was going to have to get across the westerly set shown just south of lat. 32 degrees and the winning boat would almost definitely be the one that selected the right cross over point. In accessing the factors to be considered, we made use of Noel’s local knowledge. The number of times we heard “No-one ever won a Lord Howe race by coming at it from the south” during that race was enough to have indelibly burned this little saying into my mind (thanks Noel!).
In developing a race strategy, the information input needs to be assessed and weighted according to its importance in the overall picture. It is necessary to have as much data as possible both from the crew and outside the boat and while much of this can’t be, or is not put on paper, it is still contributory. How you evaluate and use this information determines whether the decisions made are either logical or just pure guesswork.
Now, given that Noel was advising to go north, the forecast was for the breeze to lighten and also move to the left of our course, at some point we had to get across the western set (with this set being narrower closer to the mainland than the island), then logically we should go left early and take the pain before the rest of the fleet. This meant getting through one or maybe two skeds knowing that we would show up poorly in our overall placing as we suffered the adverse set while the rest of the fleet continued in the favoured current South of lat. 32.30.
The overall result of this was that while some crew became a little dismayed at hearing of our relatively poor position on Sunday evening, by Monday morning we had broken through the adverse set, picked up a one know easterly current and were relatively “tramping” towards our mark in a 5 to 12 knot breeze that oscillated from 80 degrees to 120 degrees for most of the day. While this wind did not finally result in us getting the big North Easterly winning leg that we had hoped for, it did flicker far enough into the North East for Noel to win his bet of 2 jugs of Bundaberg with Rob who eventually, but happily, provided the stake. There were, other contributing factors also playing a role in putting us in our final winning position.
First, the easterly set we picked up was pushing us into the wind, improving our apparent breeze and thus increasing both our speed through the water and VMG. Secondly, not only were we now being set eastwards at 1 knot but the bulk of the fleet, crossing the adverse current at the same time as were enjoying our lift, was doing so at a point much wider than where we had crossed and in a breeze that, as forecast, had softened and moved into the east.
We spent the rest of Monday evening tacking toward the island and finally crossed the finish at 0102 on Tuesday morning, ten minutes astern of Occasional Course Language and ten minutes ahead of Zurich.
While this account of the race is a navigator’s version and there are sure to be other more colourful stories about “the year we won the Lord Howe Race” there is one important comment to be made. The J was sailed very close to its potential by a bunch of yachties who came together on the day to form a champion team. We had no “rock stars” on board but we did have a lot of sea miles between us and some very delightful men who I would be happy to cast off with again.
Our maximum speed during the race was 16.4 knots down a wave on the first night out and our across the line position was third. J44 Phoenix won the PHS division and came third in IMS. I would like to extend my thanks to Rob Reynolds and the rest of the guys on the boat for a great race and even greater time.
Footnote: As a special note of thanks to Rob, the crew chipped in for a granite incense burner to which Craney added “essence of crew”, ostensibly gathered up from our respective hotel bathrooms on Lord Howe to be burned in it. This was presented to him with all due aplomb on prize night to the raucous applause of all. The crew party was like a mini Sydney-Hobart Q-L-D without the live entertainment and beer throwing but with a welcoming mix of locals who clearly wanted to enjoy themselves. The “formal” presentation of prizes immediately preceded a long night of dining and revelry that included much dancing, jugs of “Bundy” and telling of stories that get longer and more incredible in direct proportion to the level of beverage consumed.
All this occurred during a very heavy, continuous 24hr downpour due to a tropical depression moving across the island on the first of November which did nothing more than guarantee everyone was completely wet on both sides – in and out. Getting home from the party meant negotiating unknown paths in total, pitch-black darkness (no street lighting) and for those who did manage it, the feat should be recorded as the greatest of Lord Howe week 2000!
As sailors do, there was much time spent in drinking and re-living every watch of the race just completed but the pull of the island’s beauty was still irresistible. During the two to three days that visiting yachts spent at moorings, groups of boating types could be seen enjoying the many spectacular walks, hand-feeding fish at the famous Ned’s Beach or riding the ubiquitous bicycles around a network of 25 kpm max roads and paths.
Lord Howe is a place of great beauty and should be on every ocean cruising and racing yachty's list of “must visit” destinations. Situated on a latitude similar to northern NSW, it enjoys mild to warm weather all year round and can’t be overcrowded by boats (visitor numbers at any one time are restricted).
The entire island is World Heritage listed and upon even superficial examination, the reasons for this are obvious. Vegetation is lush and diverse (an interesting mix of tropical plants among temperate woodlands), fish species and other sea creatures are incredibly abundant while the bird life is nothing short of an ornithologist’s paradise; from the endemic wood pigeon to the many seabirds such as terns, gulls, noddies and boobys. Of special interest is the Kentia Palm, a long time standard indoor plant in many Tasmanian homes that is a native of Lord Howe Island and nowhere else on earth.
If you’ve read this far into the article, you’ll be pleased to know that the natives are friendly and there are among them (as you find just about everywhere else in the world) some who claim Tasmanian birthrights, leading of course to the inevitable, “do you know so and so up at ...?”
That said, it would take very little persuasion to get me back to this magnificent part of Australia.